The golden years of Constance D. Isherwood, QC

Connie Isherwood

Known by the “boys” at law school as “Sherlock Holmes,” there was never anything missing in Connie’s law school notes, says her husband and 1948 UBC law school classmate Foster Isherwood. “At the time, I guess she would have been one of a handful of women passing through gangs of men,” he recalls. “Connie never put herself out there to be recognized, she asked few questions in class, and then she walked away with a medal.”

After vying for the top spot with one of the six women in UBC law school’s 1951 graduating class of 200, Constance Holmes became the first woman to receive the Law Society’s gold medal.

“It was an honour, and I was happy to have reached that achievement,” Connie said, who at 87 years old still practises law in Victoria. “My principal, Ernest Tait, said that it would no doubt open doors for me, and of course it did.”

UBC Alumni Chronicle  
Courtesy of UBC Alumni Association
Connie was the first woman law graduate to win the Law Society gold medal. She ws featured in the June 1951 issue of the UBC Alumni Chronicle.  

The medal not only helped to open doors for Connie, a former legal secretary, but it also signalled a new era for many other women who followed in her footsteps.

Speaking to Connie Isherwood, QC (nee Holmes), it is no surprise that she led the way for a strong tradition of excellence among women lawyers. She keeps a pace that many people half her age would have trouble keeping up to. She is the Chancellor of the Anglican Diocese of BC, a post she has held for 20 years and been reappointed to three times. She is active in her Victoria community, belonging to the Women’s Business Network of Vancouver Island, the Asian Arts Society, the Victoria Symphony and the Victoria Board of Trustees of the Canadian Scottish Regiment. In 2006 Connie received a University of Victoria Lifetime Achievement Legacy Award, recognizing her long-time contribution to the Victoria legal community, and the Canada 125th anniversary medal in 1992 for community service.

And Connie has no plans to slow down any time soon. She still heads up the law firm that she and her husband founded in 1964, Holmes & Isherwood. Her husband decided to retire a year ago, but Connie continues to practise part time. She is the most senior practising woman member of the Bar.

Connie met Foster in law school, but they parted ways for 12 years when he decided to practise in the Hope and Yale area of the Fraser Valley, and she set out to practise in Victoria with her mentor and principal, Ernest Tait. While Connie was one of the few women lawyers practising in her day, under Tait’s guidance she built relationships with clients during law school, so that by the time she graduated she was already an established part of the firm and the Victoria legal community. Tait passed away just two years after Connie’s 1951 call to the Bar, and she took over the practice.

“When Foster came to Victoria to practise, we renewed acquaintance and romance bloomed. My husband has always joked, even in our firm, my name came first — Holmes & Isherwood.”

Connie and Foster married shortly after he returned to Victoria and they joined their two practices together a year later in 1964. The two practised together for more than 40 years while maintaining a successful partnership — in law and marriage. But Connie is no stranger to the challenges that go along with juggling a busy law practice with family responsibilities. When Connie and Foster adopted two children, she scaled back her hours, while bringing more work home.

“When you have your own firm, you can set your own hours. It is a budgeting of time that you have to do but it can be done.”

While she credits much of her career success to the mentorship provided by Ernest Tait, Connie has mentored many others over her 56-year career. Her nephew, Robert D. Holmes, a partner with Holmes & King in Vancouver, says it was Connie who inspired him to pursue a career in law.

“She was a role model for me,” says Robert. “I always thought that she led the most exciting life, and she was able to make things better for people. When I was about seven or eight years old I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do when I grow up.’”

With a career that spans the post-war era through to the new millennium, Connie has witnessed the evolution of women’s role in the workforce, and the legal profession. She has seen the BC legal community transform from a small group of lawyers to a large and diverse group of 11,000 spread across the province. The age of technology has had the most profound impact, she says, noting how this has allowed lawyers to shorten the amount of time required to do research, and to get answers when a problem requires a quick response. But Connie continues to use the typewriter and dictation methods that Holmes & Isherwood always used, and doesn’t rely on advertising to bring business to her practice.

She also feels that the evolution of pro bono work has been very positive.

“As the years have gone by there has been more attempt to assist the public with legal aid — help for those who are not able to afford it — and that should continue.”

It’s that desire to serve the public good that keeps Connie motivated to continue practice.

“She enjoys listening to people, and she’s so patient. Her clients love her for that,” says Foster.

“Connie has a unique ability to make people feel special,” adds Robert. “She can walk into a room of complete strangers, talk to almost everybody, and in quick order make each and everybody feel as if they are the most important person in the world.”

When Connie began working in the law office of Ernest Tait, she never would have dreamed that she would be practising law nearly 60 years later, in a firm that she founded herself, with many clients that she has carried from the beginning. But it’s a calling that she continues to relish, well into her golden years, long after many of the law school “boys” have retired.

“Even now clients will come in to the office and say ‘good morning Miss Holmes.’ They still remember me from the old days.”